For the first time in Maile Bent’s life, she feels a connection to her Native Hawaiian ancestry. She feels it in the soil in her hands, caked into her fingernails, while gardening under the sun on the Windward side of Oahu.
"There’s a lot of spiritual healing here," she said after taking a bite out of a guava picked from a tree she helped grow with 11 other women.
While Bent and the other women are busy pulling weeds, watering plants or harvesting produce, a guard is constantly hovering. The women are inmates at the Women’s Community Correctional Center — Hawaii’s only prison for women.
Bent, 42, originally from the Big Island, never thought much about what it means to be part Hawaiian, until she started learning about the land and how it can provide nourishment, just as it has for centuries for Hawaiians. "There’s a sense of freedom down here."
She is serving a five-year sentence for drug possession. For now, freedom is a few hours, several days a week while participating in the gardening and farming program for minimum- and medium-security prisoners with good behavior.
The program is among three similar ones at Hawaii correctional facilities. Inmates at Oahu’s Waiawa Correctional Facility, a minimum-security men’s prison, and inmates at a jail on Kauai farm produce that is consumed in prison and jail cafeterias. The Waiawa inmates also grow fish, but because prisoners aren’t allowed to eat anything with bones, the fish are given to a community college’s culinary program, said Toni Schwartz, spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety.
The first time Kimberly Enos smelled a water lily was while incarcerated. The flower is a symbol of the marked change in the life of the 36-year-old mother of three daughters. Enos began serving a 20-year sentence for meth trafficking two years ago. She’ll be eligible for parole in three years.
"Money and drugs, everything was based around that," she said, showing off a taro patch she tends to. "I look forward to waking up every day now."
All the women in the group talked about the healing qualities of growing things as they readied for a weekend plant sale. Potted plants, flowers and herbs the women grow are sold every year at Kailua Elementary School to raise money to keep the program running.
Materials and volunteers for the program are provided by Lanikai Outdoor Circle. The only expenses for the prison are for water and the guard who keeps a close eye on the women, said warden Milton Kotsubo. Only 12 from the 230-inmate facility can participate.
Inmates started a nursery in 2000 in a remote corner of the women’s prison property. Three years ago they began using hydroponics. Overall, the prison farms provide about 25 percent of produce consumed by inmates, resulting in only negligible savings, Schwartz said: "If we could expand it, it would be a different story."
The impact on the women goes deeper. The way Lilian Hussein explains it is that growing things "symbolizes our life." Planting, she said, is about finding the root of her problems and starting over.
"I planted all these ti leaves from they were just little stems," said Hussein, 43, marveling at the long, dark green plants.